Something pretty spectacular was just around the corner, but there are just a couple of loose ends to tidy up first. I’d got involved with the NAAFI football team, which was actually the SC Herford 4th team. SC Herford played in the second tier of The Bundeslige and it was a motley crew of mainly NAAFI lads that comprised the 4th team, who played in a local German amateur league. I Googled them a couple of years ago to find that they had sadly gone into free fall and were now defunct.
I wasn’t particularly good; I was normally the sub who came on for the last 20 minutes, but sometimes when the team were short of players I got a start. The games were inevitably quite rough, with the rough stuff always, without exception, being instigated by the Brits. To this day I have not seen a more graceful sight than an opposition player being launched into the air by the boot of NAAFI butcher “Mick The Meat”; it was pure ballet that Dame Margot herself would have been proud of. It’s crazy the things that stick in your mind, but I’ve never forgotten Mick. He was a Northern lad; an absolute monster on the football field, but quite the gentleman off it. He even had a tea mug with the words “I’d rather be at the disco” on the side!
Relations between me and some of the other lads became quite strained, to the extent that they no longer passed the ball to me, even if I was in a good position. However, I was that thick during that period of my life that it took me a while to realise. Sonja had been out running and some kids had pushed her over. She badly injured her ankle and had to be hospitalized for a few days. She had to have her leg in plaster for a while and became very bitter; so much so that she took it out on people who had been there for her. One of the girls who she took her bitterness out on was the wife of one of the lads in the football team. They had been great friends of ours, but not anymore. Tony also played for the team and by now his body language indicated that I was no longer top of his Christmas card list. When you lose really good friends it makes you think, and even though I was very unconscious at that time, I had enough awareness to know that there was a lesson in there somewhere.
There was also the business of my job no longer going the way I wanted it to. I had no interest at all in the run-of-the-mill audio equipment that I was now responsible for. It seemed so mundane next to the Hi-Fi equipment and I just became fed up with the whole NAAFI set up and decided it was time to return to the UK. We had visited various members of Sonja’s other families during periodic trips back to England (I say “families” and not family because Doug was Bobby’s third husband so Sonja seemed to have relations all over Southern England). We’d visited her natural father, who lived near Andover, and also her half-sister who lived in Swindon. So, in our wisdom we decided that Swindon would be a great place to move back to. We also had some friends, Kathy and Joe, that we’d know from Germany. I’d worked with Kathy in Bielefeld G&D and got to know Joe through her. Joe was a Captain in the army, he was an ordinary bloke who had worked hard and come up through the ranks. They left Germany a few months before us and were living in officer’s quarters in Lyneham, Wiltshire. Lyneham is not that far from Swindon so they said we could come and stay with them until we found our own place.
During one of our trips back to the UK I’d attended various interviews and been accepted as a salesman with Sun Alliance Services, who were the direct sales wing of the well-known insurance provider Sun Alliance. It was commission only and the harsh realities of what that meant had not occurred to me. Sonja was to go back three weeks before me, she would stay with Kathy and Joe and use the three weeks to look for a job and hopefully find us some accommodation. NAAFI would provide an allowance for removals, but it became apparent that we would not be able to take everything with us because we were only allowed so many cubic meters of space. This meant we would have to do a runner from the flat and lose our deposit. At the time we seemed to have so much money it just didn’t matter. So, Sonja set off for England and for a short while I would be in bloke heaven. I could have as much booze as I could drink. I could listen to loud music through my headphones without a wife I didn’t love nagging me to pay her some attention and I could go out when I wanted without being whinged at. However, all this lulled me into a false sense of security because bloke heaven was about to come crashing down. To explain this properly I need to rewind slightly.
Sonja had worked for an extremely dodgy travel company during our time in Bielefeld that specialised in ferrying service personnel and their families to and from the UK. They had offices in various locations in Germany, including Herford, so when we moved Sonja transferred to the Herford branch. She was working there when she had the accident and even though her leg was still in plaster she was soon able to continue working in the office. One evening I was going somewhere with friends of ours. Sonja didn’t come because someone from the travel company was coming round to see her about “work”. We waited for the bloke to arrive; it was someone I’d met before anyway, and then we left them to their own devices. When we got back a short time later Sonja said she had been asked for her shop keys and once she’d handed them over had been told that she no longer worked for the company. Because I knew they were dodgy, I just assumed that they had some financial problems and they were shafting their employees. There was never any contract after all. Then…
Sonja got another job, just along from Herford shop, with another employer who also provided travel services to service personnel and their families. Whenever I went to pick her up from work in the evening she would always have a story that her dodgy boss had paid her wages with a cheque that bounced and he’d told her to just keep taking money from the cash box until she had the required amount. Then as we were approaching our last Christmas in Germany Sonja said she’d been fired and that she was owed money. In addition to that, just prior to Christmas she said she was going into work on Christmas Day to help out! Even though she no longer worked there, even though she was owed money in unpaid wages! I was flummoxed, I just couldn’t get my head around things. I said, “you must be mad”, but she just said that she felt sorry for him and that his mother had recently died. I decided that it was her decision and that I wasn’t going to interfere. Then it happened… Fast forward to me being in bloke heaven in Germany with my wife back in the UK.
Bloke heaven had been in motion for no more than a week. I went into work as normal and at some stage during the day I was in the vicinity of the foyer when I noticed a man, that I recognised as Sonja’s ex-boss going into the manager’s office with Mr Simpson, who was the store manager. Mike Simpson was as dodgy as they come; so dodgy that his nickname was “Slippery”. Of course, we didn’t call him Slippery to his face, but I actually mean this as a compliment. Unless you worked for NAAFI yourself during this period you will not understand what I mean. Anyhow… the next thing I know a message comes via the grapevine that I’m wanted in the manager’s office. Slippery said he would leave us to it, and what followed was nothing short of comical. We sat at opposite sides of the desk to each other and he proceeded to tell me how my wife had fleeced him. I honestly thought it was some kind of joke; especially when he showed me documentary evidence, which implied that Sonja had signed deposit slips that showed she had banked money. But instead of actually putting the money in the bank she’d kept it. I remember saying to him, “no one is that stupid”, because this was not a one-off; it happened literally loads of times. Show me a fraudster that repeatedly signs their name to a crime and I’ll show you an idiot!
What I found quite disturbing was that his tone of voice and his body language indicated that he thought I was in on the scam. I was having none of it, but he wasn’t having it from me either. I refused to tell him Sonja’s whereabouts and contact phone number, but not only had she apparently been the worst fraudster in the history of the human race, but she also left a forwarding address! Now I knew for sure that it was all simply a huge misunderstanding; it had to be, didn’t it? To alleviate the situation I promised him that I would phone Sonja that night, get her version of the story and then come to see him in his office during my lunch break the next day. That evening some neighbours very kindly let me phone Sonja at Kathy and Joe’s. I told her this incredible story and she said she knew nothing about it. Her ex-boss had said that Interpol were on the case. Sonja was a lot of things, but an international criminal mastermind she wasn’t, so I just didn’t take that statement seriously.
True to my word I went to see him in his office the next day. There was a woman working there too who also said that Sonja had stolen the money. I should add that when I put it to him that he had constantly paid Sonja’s wages with cheques that bounced and that he still owed her money, he looked at me in a way that suggested he thought I was either a complete buffoon or I was trying to have a laugh at his expense. I simply didn’t believe that my wife, or indeed anyone, could be that stupid so it was a stalemate. There was a real atmosphere in that office when I turned and left. The next two weeks or so were spent with me constantly looking over my shoulder. I also decided that if the door buzzer went while I was in the flat I wouldn’t answer the door. Ten days before I was due to leave the removals people turned up. I wasn’t too pleased because it turned out they were killing two birds with one stone. They already had a load on, which limited my space even more. I prioritised our belongings and just left what didn’t go on the van in the flat. I spent the next ten days before leaving still looking over my shoulder and not answering the door. I’d phoned Sonja and told her the outcome of my chat with her ex-boss and she still said she knew nothing about it.
The big day came, 28 February 1986, I had more than a tear in my eye as I left the shop, which surprised me. That evening the VW Passat was packed up to the hilt. I closed the door to the flat for the last time and put the key in the caretaker’s outside letter box. John Bastock came to wave me off and I drove off into the night.
To finish this part of my story I’m going to share something very strange with you that happened during my journey. I had driven a fair distance down the autobahn but was nonetheless still in Germany. All of a sudden there was a problem with the car. I knew nothing about cars back then and still don’t. To my relief the problem reared its head just as I was approaching a service station, so I took the slip road and pulled up. I can’t remember exactly what happened but when I stopped the car a German man just happened to be there. He spoke in English, I assumed because he saw my British plate, and asked if I had a problem. I seem to remember him asking me to lift the bonnet but I can’t remember him doing anything. The next thing I knew the car was running fine and I was on my way to the port in Belgium. The whole episode seemed to take no time at all. I’ve never forgotten that.
Part Six follows soon…